Chef mixes food with fun at North Yarmouth school

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NORTH YARMOUTH — Start with an end-of-the-school-day assembly, mix in a game show and teachers dressed as fruits and vegetables, and you have a recipe for a food education.

The fourth- and fifth-grade students at North Yarmouth Memorial School made that clear to anyone within earshot Feb. 12, roaring in laughter as they sat on the floor and watched an assembly line of whole and healthy delectables march into the gym.

Erin Dow, a professional chef, and Jon Carlson, food service director for School Administrative District 51, helped cook up a variety of activities to get the youths excited about eating right. This is the second year that Dow has visited SAD 51 schools to teach students how different food groups work to support the learning process.

This year “we’re trying (to get) these guys more educated and then more invested by giving them choices in the menus,” said Dow, of Winthrop.

Dow’s visits have been funded by a grant obtained by SAD 51 Food Boosters, a group of parents who advocate a culture of healthy school food. The grant came from Foundation 51, an organization that raises money to support district initiatives.

Foundation 51 has “been really supportive of this effort, and hoping that there’ll be a ripple effect,” Food Boosters member Lalla Carothers said. “Both in terms of what Jon and his staff are doing, which has been just incredible … but also raising awareness among families and among kids, and giving them more choices.”

And they seem to be making the right choices. Carothers said people have told her their children are now eating broccoli.

“Ultimately we want to actually shift the culture a little bit,” she said, and show how cooking healthy meals at home can be both simple and affordable.

“The difference with this school district in particular, as opposed to other ones I’ve worked with, is that the parents have taken the initiative,” Dow said. “And by writing the grants they’ve kind of overcome the administrative and financial block that a lot of other people have when they’re trying to initiate change in their district.”

At both NYMS and the Mabel I. Wilson elementary school, Dow and Carlson developed three menus that are workable from a production standpoint in both facilities, and that they think will appeal to students. Dow’s meals have been added to menus at the schools.

“I just added a confetti pasta that we did to March’s menu,” Carlson said. “… We’re excited about some of the choices.”

After participating in a “What’s on Your Plate” game show – where brave students stood in front of their assembled peers, and their culinarily-costumed teachers, to guess questions put to them – the youths voted by an applause-o-meter for which of three meals they want Dow to prepare for them when she returns next month.

By an overwhelming majority, they chose burrito in a bowl, with tortilla chips, Mexican rice and black bean and corn salsa. Carlson, garbed as Capt. Carrot, served as the needle in the applause-o-meter, and leaned almost to the floor to register the kids’ excitement.

After the assembly the youths returned to their classrooms to prepare three healthy dips to be served with vegetables.

“By using this kind of excitement model, what we’re doing is investing them in the program kind of by peer pressure, but in a good way,” Dow said. “We’re finding that when the kids are involved with the decision-making, they’re more likely to eat the food. And in the end, our end user is a child, so if we’re running a restaurant that caters to 10-year-olds, we want to serve them food that 10-year-olds want to eat.”

“If we have to have a game show like this today,” she added, “to convince kids to buy into whole grains, or legumes, or something that’s going to benefit them in the long run, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Sidebar Elements

Kit Rafford, a fifth-grade student at North Yarmouth Memorial School, earns the applause of staff dressed as fruits and vegetables during a healthy food assembly Feb. 12. From left are Katie Campbell, a potato; Rebecca Gervais, broccoli; Clare Harrington, watermelon; Scott Barksdale, plum; Libby Gordon, banana; chef Erin Dow; Food Services Director Jon Carlson, as Capt. Carrot, and Principal Carol MacArthur, tomato.

Jon “Capt. Carrot” Carlson, School Administrative District 51 food services director, serves as the needle in the applause-o-meter gauging how North Yarmouth Memorial School students vote for which of three meals they want chef Erin Dow to prepare when she returns to the school next month.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.